Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Personality Spotlight: William "Bull" Nelson

***Note: The following post was edited on September 20, 2010 with information provided by Donald A. Clark of Lexington, Kentucky, who will release a biography of Nelson in December 2010.***

William "Bull" Nelson was born in Mason County, Kentucky on September 27, 1824. He was educated at Norwich Academy in Vermont and served in the United States Navy as a midshipman in the 1840s. Nelson's service in the navy included a part in the Mexican War where he helped land Winfield Scott's army at Vera Cruz. Tragedy afforded Nelson an opportunity when two lieutenants went down on the USS Albany and he and East Tennessean Samuel P. Carter were called on to fill their places in 1855, but during Civil War he was to find himself off the water and on dry land.
William's brother Thomas was named by President Abraham Lincoln as the minister to Chile shortly after Lincoln was elected in 1860. William was quickly secured by the Lincoln administration to gage the political sentiment in Kentucky. He also established Camp Dick Robinson, a Union recruiting and training center in Garrard County. In September 1861 Nelson was detailed for duty in the Union army and made a brigadier general. By December of 1861 he was in charge of the 4th Division of the Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell.

Nelson led troops in battle at Shiloh in April 1862, and was promoted to major general in July of 1862. Nelson has the distinction of being the only naval officer to become a full-rank major general in the army; Union or Confederate, during the Civil War. Nelson's promotion in July 1862 put him in charge of the Army of Kentucky, which comprised the brigades of Mahlon Manson and Charles Cruft. On August 29 and 30, 1862, Manson's brigade engaged Confederate General Kirby Smith's force near Richmond, Kentucky. Manson's brigade was mainly made up of untrained Indiana soldiers. The veteran Confederates rapidly routed the Yankees at Richmond and took about 4000 of them prisoner. Nelson had hurried to the site of the battle and had tried to rally his troops, but he proved unsuccessful and was slightly wounded in the face, but did escape capture.

While recovering in Louisville he was placed in charge of the defense of the town to thwart Braxton Bragg's Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Nelson's replacement, acting Major General Charles C. Gilbert had accused the Indiana soldiers at Richmond of cowardice and had thus drawn the ire of native Hoosier General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). After a number of disagreements, Nelson had ordered Davis under arrest and back to Cincinnati. While in Cincinnati Davis was advised by a comrade to return to Louisville, but to stay away from Nelson. On September 29, 1862, Davis and his party, which included Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton ran into Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville. Davis, still fuming and feeling mistreated asked Nelson why he had been arrested and sent to Cincinnati. Nelson, a hulking man at over 6 feet and 300 pounds (thus the Bull nickname), brushed Davis off and ordered the "puppy" to leave his sight. Davis retaliated by throwing a crumpled up calling card at Nelson. Nelson then slapped Davis across the face and walked away. Davis shouted a few disparaging remarks at Nelson and then pursued him. Nelson stopped and turned and Davis shot Nelson once in the chest. Nelson died within minutes. Davis was not tried for the murder and the already shaky Union command structure was made even more unstable by Nelson's death. The largest battle in Kentucky, the Battle of Perryville, was fought just nine days after Nelson's shooting.

Camp Nelson, established in Jessamine County, Kentucky in 1863 was named for William Nelson and served as a major recruiting and training base of African American Kentucky troops.


  1. That Jefferson Davis was not tried for the murder of Nelson was one of the greatest injustices of U.S. military history.

    The implication that military officers "looked the other way" because they personally disliked Nelson is not a correct interpretation of the facts.

  2. Interesting, but lacks details of the confrontation described elsewhere on the Web, e.g. Davis left the hallway where the slap took place, borrowed a pistol from a captain in another room, then returned to slay Nelson. CoachAbe is correct regarding the "injustice"; why Davis wasn't charged isn't clear. he was one of the few officers who received battle-field commissions from the rank of Private during the Mexican War and was one of those who served in Fort Sumter during the bombardment. His friendship with Indiana Governor Morton undoubtedly played a role.